You have to hand it to the former general/president. Nobody can really match the age-defying, flamboyant showstopper like Jatiya Party Chairman HM Ershad. His latest stunt to come up with the biggest alliance ever, comprising 58 organisations, mostly religious based, has certainly given much meat for media persons covering the political beat. Never mind that out of the 58 'parties', most of which are fairly unknown, only two of them are actually registered and therefore have any legitimacy to take part in elections. It's the thought that counts.
Things have been a little prickly for AL after citizens' groups and the media have vehemently criticised the unexpected rendezvous with religious groups whose 'tamarind ideology' is in direct contradiction to the ruling party's stated ideology which is supposed to uphold the values of our Liberation War. Apart from making absurd concessions like changing words in textbooks to make them sound more Muslim and removing works considered classics in literature because they were authored by non-Muslims, the ruling party has held meetings with this extremist group that believes women should not work and the country should run under Sharia law. Only four years ago the same people had tried to hold the capital city hostage and were successfully driven out by the government forces, much to the relief of Dhaka's residents. Also, let's not forget some of the demands made by this group. Besides the call to 'free all arrested Islamic scholars and madrasa students', the group wanted the government to declare Ahmadiyyas as non-Muslim, ban 'free mixing of men and women and candlelit vigil' 'stop setting sculptures at intersections, colleges and universities', scrap the women's policy and the education policy (replacing it with Islamic education) and go after NGOs that might be trying to “convert” people. The AL's indulgence towards this group may be just for political expediency but as the saying goes, 'when you play with fire there is always the possibility of getting burnt.'
Oh sorry, did we forget to mention the date when all this happened? This was in May 2013, not May 1813, and now it is May 2017, with the group not moving an inch from its medieval expectations and getting quite a lot of unexplained leeway from the government - for instance, an unusual delay in the probes of 58 cases filed over the May 5-6, 2013 mayhem during which Hefajat men set fire to hundreds of shops, vehicles, police checkpoints, looted and vandalised shops, including those having Islamic books. Violent clashes with the police occurred and 13 people were killed, including three policemen. Hefajat 'slightly' exaggerated the figure and put it down to 2,000 of its own members being killed, though they could not give the names of the 1,990 dead members nobody could find.
But all that is stale news, for the moment. The AL is showing its seriousness about the next parliamentary polls (which we hope will be slightly different from the 2014 elections in which 153 seats were bagged uncontested by the ruling party). It is concentrating on the seven city corporation elections as a warm up, prepping exercise for its members. Perhaps, the embarrassing win of BNP candidates in three mayoral posts had a little bit to do with it.
BNP, meanwhile, is behaving like a fallen saint desperately trying to get his halo back by making all sorts of lofty claims that they think will beguile the public. They say they will put an end to 'autocratic practices within the democratic system' and 'might' amend Article 70 of the Constitution so that lawmakers can show they have a mind of their own and cast votes against the party mantra (except in certain cases) when they feel they should. The idea that BNP members may actually try to diminish the power of their rather formidable party chief is quite a joke as is the party's constant tirade about the corruption of the ruling party, as if the whole saga of Hawa Bhaban, the unofficial headquarters of all government deals during BNP's tenure, was just a figment of the imagination.
Unfortunately, with its own pathetic track record regarding corruption and its stubborn clinging to the Jamaat, the BNP is not really offering anything new to the public, save a change from the existing rule.
This is probably where the AL may be treading on thin ice and where it really needs to work hard. Positive developments during its tenure include major improvements in infrastructure, an apparently effective fight against terrorism, an upward trend in economic growth, almost reaching a middle-income status, and so on. But what about that politically sticky, undesirable thing called 'public perception'? How has that fared?
Where does one begin, one despairs. Let's start with that which governments hate to talk about - corruption. Let's talk about some of the poorest of the poor voters – right now the flood-hit farmers and their families of Sunamganj who have lost all their crops and livelihood to the floods and are being deprived of the government's VGF (Vulnerable Group Feeding) cards because a local government representative and his family have decided it would be far more beneficial (for them) to sell the rice for a profit. Let's talk about migrant workers; TIB says that around 90 percent of five lakh workers had to pay bribes at different stages at the concerned ministry and bureau, hiking up the cost of the visas manifolds. Saying that the TIB claims are baseless and motivated hardly solves the problem of exploitation that we all know these workers are plagued with. The culture of everything being up for sale – a position in the police force, a case to be filed or not taken, an arrest to be made or not, a vehicle license or a birth certificate, a passport renewal or any kind of official paperwork – has taken on Herculean proportions, and nobody (read government) seems to know what to do about it.
Then again all that pales in comparison with the completely out of control 'activists' of the AL's student and youth wings, who are treating campuses all over the country like Attila the Hun's personal playground to grab, vandalise, humiliate and petrify the lesser mortals. Another plague that has afflicted the ruling party is the rabid infighting leading to numerous deaths and division within – hardly something one would want before an election campaign.
We won't go into the business of 'accidental' custodial deaths and mysterious disappearances – it's just not safe to talk about such things, you know with those stifling laws and everything. Suffice to say that the ruling party needs to get its act together by weeding out the bad apples in the basket (hopefully, there will be some good ones left) and making sure the train to development is back on the tracks.
So where does good old Ershad, the apparent saviour of democracy come in? Well, he claims his goal is to contest the next elections and form a government with his medley of a coalition. The inclusion of at least 34 religion-based organisations is, no doubt, the age-old religious card that politicians use to ensure votes from chunks of the population. His tenacity is commendable as are all the hats he is made to wear, depending on the convenience of others. His would be the most diverse resume anyone could have – former autocrat, opposition party chief, advisor to the prime minister and now the leader of a mystery coalition consisting of more than 30 religion based organisations that may pose as a proxy opposition in the next elections.
The writer is Deputy Editor, Opinion and Editorial, The Daily Star.